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Crossing the Mekong by Bike

We woke up quite relaxed, mostly due to the last vestiges of the anti-anxiety medication we had taken the night before, and mostly no worse for the wear. The bus ride to Nong Khai had taken quite a bit longer than expected. The traffic leaving Bangkok was an immense snarl. I remember waking up a number of times on the bus to find us simply stewing in an endless stagnating river of bumper-to-bumper traffic.

The bus had no bathroom and stopped infrequently, so I had deliberately dehydrated myself. Not surprisingly, my first thoughts off the bus were of water. My next was of time. The sun seemed quite high, so I looked down at my watch. Our bus should have arrived a little before 8:00nam, but it turns out we had not rolled into Nong Khai until nearly noon. Our chances of getting to Luang Prabang in the north of Laos that evening were growing ever slimmer.

We unfolded the speed TRs and slung on our packs. My knees were a little creaky, and my feet a little sore from sleeping for so long in the upright position, crammed like sardines against the bulkhead, but we were more or less well rested and excited to be AsiaWheeling again. Onward to a new country again, at last!

Once we got clear of the bus terminal, we wheeled for a while in the wrong direction, mostly due to some sour advice given to us by a fellow driving a large pickup truck full of watermelons. Eventually, a family running a small roadside repair and noodle shop explained to us that a simple uber-rausch would have us back on track.

Now headed in the right direction, we laid into the speed TRs double time, just letting them eat road. And soon we were at the border. This border is called the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge. We exited Thailand with no trouble whatsoever, and commenced wheeling across the bridge. The guards at the entrance to the bridge seemed uninterested in soliciting a toll from us, instead greeting us with huge smiles and flagging us on.

As we rode on across toward Laos, our way was adorned with Lao and Thai flags. We looked down to our left, where some kind of strange emergent beach party was coming to life on the banks of the Mekong.

The Mekong was, and still is, at its lowest point in the last 50 years, but even during this current terrible drought, it is a mighty river to behold. And the extent to which the bridge overshot the shore on either side spoke to how much larger the thing could be during a heavy rainy season.

Near the midpoint of the bridge was a place where both of the side walkways abruptly ended in giant warning signs, and we were forced to portage the cycles down onto the main road.

This was somewhat harrowing since there was no shoulder and little room for the giant goods and construction trucks to avoid us. Luckily traffic was pretty light, and from there we rode into Laos, which we quickly learned is locally written “Lao.” The French added the “s” to the end in order to be French, but the Lao have since dispensed with it, as will we.

There is an interesting moment once you cross off the bridge and onto Lao ground. In Lao, they maintain the French style of driving on the right side of the road. Until this point, AsiaWheeling had been traveling exclusively in left-side driving countries. The bridge itself was a lefty as well. But upon arrival on Lao soil, the road criss-crosses itself, much like a figure eight slot car track, and we started driving on the right.

It was strange to drive once again on the side I grew up with, like trying on an old pair of tennis shoes that has long languished in a closet at your father’s house.

We wheeled up to the Lao visa upon entry counter and had very little trouble acquiring the required documentation. In fact, our passports came back to us not only with a gleaming new visa, but with an entry stamp to boot, allowing us to shortcut the arrivals line and wheel directly into Lao.

On the other side, we met a French fellow named Olivier, who was also headed into the Lao capital city of Vientiane. The three of us haggled a decent fair for a van ride into the city, though our driver was successful in extracting another $3.00 above the quoted rate from Scott and I when we asked to be dropped off at the bus station rather than Olivier’s hotel. Fair enough. Once at the station, we unloaded our belongings and began to survey the area.

The Vientiane bus station is a none too glamorous place. It is small and jam-packed with old Korean buses. Likely due to the impending New Years celebration in Luang Prabang, it was also reasonably crowded, with people looking to head out of the city for the holiday.

All the scheduled VIP buses had been booked long ago, so we were left with the option of waiting here in Vientiane for a bus tomorrow, or getting on one of the many “people’s buses,” which ran on no schedule, and simply left as soon as all the tickets were purchased. With so many people in the station, these were leaving at the alarming rate of two or three an hour. That said, they were also quite the crap shoot in terms of quality. Some of them looked passably nice: aging Korean double deckers advertising interior bathrooms. Others were more like crumpled jalopies held together mostly by paint and rust.

It was then that we realized we were starving. The decision of what to do next would warrant a full stomach we decided, and thus proceeded to a restaurant in the vicinity of the bus station, where we were able to procure two giant steaming bowls of the Lao interpretation of Pho, my favorite Vietnamese soup variant. Each steaming bowl of noodles was accompanied by a large plastic basket of freshly washed greens (basil, mint, lettuce, and dandelion) which could be torn apart and added to the soup, along with fresh cloves of garlic and hot peppers. We doped ours heavily with a variety of fish, and spicy and savory sauces before tearing apart and adding plenty of greens. It was glorious.

With sanity, logic, and lucidity rising as they tend to along with blood sugar, we decided that we needed to get to Luang Prabang, and that the people’s bus would do just fine. And with that, Scott purchased tickets. We rounded the corner to check out the bus on which we had just snagged a spot, and breathed a sigh of relief. It was one of the nicer ones and even seemed to sport a bathroom. Feeling quite jolly about the whole thing, we began to fold up the cycles and load them unto the underbelly of the large double-decker.

Just as we were trying to do this, a man came up to us and indicated that we stop, and step back with our luggage. Though he was not in uniform, few of the officials in this station were, so we followed his orders. He then proceeded to conduct a team of men who loaded the entire remainder of the underbelly of our bus with large multicolored tarpaulin bags. When this deed was done, the un-uniformed official came over to us and apologized, explaining that he did not know we had so much luggage, and we would need to catch the next bus.

We protested a fair bit, but when it came down to it, he held the cards. So Scott was ushered into the back door of the ticket office, where he exchanged the tickets for ones on the next bus. Along with the exchange came a hefty refund as well. It seems the next bus would be a little more down to earth. It was certainly no double-decker, and had no bathroom, but the seats reclined and there was room for our luggage, so AsiaWheeling climbed aboard in the highest of spirits.

So high were our spirits, in fact, that it seemed nothing could bring them down. Not when the bus broke down the first time, and the driver and his helper got out to top up the power steering fluid, bleeding the hydraulics in a thick stream out into the road.

Or the second time it broke down and the driver and his helper got out a Persian looking rug that they laid down beneath the bus to make working underneath it more comfortable.

One of the breakdowns occurred near a giant street of baguette vendors.

Lao was after all a French colony at one time, which we discovered has its perks. In fact, for the rest of our time in Lao, we would never be too far from a pretty decent crusty bread.

The bus also stopped at an interesting night market in the middle of nowhere, which sported a great many vendors selling all manner of dried river fish.

We rode on munching bread, wishing we had bought some fish, but with spirits ever rising, not damped even when the driver stopped again and again to do strange things like wandering over to closed convenience stores and peering in the windows (looking for more steering fluid?), or walking around the bus, or hammering on the latches of the luggage bins with mallets for a while waking everyone up.

All we cared about was that this bus was headed to Luang Prabong and so were we.


Comments

  1. Nate | May 3rd, 2010 | 10:13 am

    The bus station reminds me of the one in Belize City, except that all the buses there were ancient yellow school buses that displayed things like “Miami Unified School District”.

    I’m excited to soon see some cameos by the great Stewart Motta!

  2. Woody | May 3rd, 2010 | 9:06 pm

    @ Nate
    Cool tidbit about Belize city’s buses. Were those the local buses, or did they use American School buses for inter-city buses as well?

    And right you are: the intersection of AsiaWheeling and Stewart Motta has stirred up quite the anticipatory lather in not a small number of our valued readers.

  3. Nate | May 6th, 2010 | 9:00 am

    Woody,

    They were inter-city buses. Though, Belize is a small country, so they only travel a few hours at a time. We took one from Belize City about three hours west to the jungle city of San Ignacio. The classic pinch-and-slide windows were all in the down position, treating us to relentless gusting hot humid air. Also, the bus was crowded enough that my family had to sit separately, and there may have even been some instances of three-to-a-bench seating (which is common among American schoolchildren but somewhat more challenging for adults to manage.)

    Loving the Motta reunion. “The Anomaly” indeed!

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